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The Purist – Omkarnath Thakur

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Omkarnath Thakur was one of the most colourful musicians to have graced the concert arena. A controversial genius, his musical enterprise often generated both apprehension and awe.

MOHAN NADKARNI on the life and times of the great musicians.

The Illustrated Weekly of India, February 22, 1987 

Omkarnath Thakur was among the more well known Hindustani classical vocalists from Gujarat.

Omkarnath Thakur was among the more well known Hindustani classical vocalists from Gujarat.

What was Pandir Omkarnath Thakur? Was he a purist? Or a romanticist? Or an iconoclast? Questions such as these continue to be discussed in the musical milieu even after nearly two decades of his death.

Indeed, there was something elusive about Panditij’s personality. Steeped in the old shastras, he claimed that he was orthodox in his vocalism. Yet he evolved a style of his own, which embodied even western flourishes like shakes and tremolos. He also chose to be a gate-crasher even while he firmly believed in the miracles and mysteries of music.

The radio was taboo to him even after India became free. More than once he had announced his retirement from active musical life – and that, too. For political reasons!

All this made Panditji a controversial maestro. And it looks as if he himself reveled in the controversy over him music. He seemed to keep its embers alive even when he was struck by paralysis and was immobilized for three years before his death.

My early encounter with Omkarnath’s music was through his commercial records. I remember it was his Nilambari that swept me off my feet by its sad charm. His sughrai number, on the other hand, would grip me by its aggressive character. While his Deskar seemed to exude pure joy. His singing, in point of both manner and matte, seemed to reveal his belief in the bhava theory.

Panditji was the first-ever maestro whom I was assigned to interview for The Bharat Jyoti, the Sunday edition of The Free Press Journal, way back in 1948.

The prospect of meeting Panditji for an interview was, therefore, welcome and a rare opportunity. It could be a challenge, too, I thought to myself, when I was told by a few knowledgeable friends all about the maestro’s mood and temperament.

I have nostalgic memories of my first meeting with him. My self-introduction made him grin and start at me. This was positive proof of his known antipathy to newspapermen.

Mercifully for me, a new mood was soon in evidence as, with a condescending smile, he asked me some searching questions with the obvious intention of sizing me up to see if I was competent enough to interview him. I think I passed the test. For after that, it was smooth sailing. I fulfilled my assignment to the requirements of my paper.

After 1948, I had another change to meet Panditji in 1958, and finally, in early 1967, when he was bed-ridden after an attack of paralysis in Bombay, as mentioned earlier. At the first interview, he had struck me as an uncompromising votary of the raga ragini theory. He held that each raga or ragini personified a male or a female character. He explained to me how the masculinity of a raga and femininity of a ragini should be fully portrayed in their melodic delineation. By way of demonstration, he regaled me with brief presentations of Nilambari, Sugraj and Deskar, precisely the melodies which were my favourite since me early days o listening.

The second meeting, on the contrary, happened to cover the maestro’s way of differentiating a raga from a ragini through specific emphasis of rasa (mood or sentiment). In his view, the sequence of swaras in aroha and avaroha was always in consonance with the dominant mood of the chosen meolody. An artiste could easily depict them in presentation with due avoidance of vocal gymnastics.

The demonstration that predictably followed was designed to highlight the dominant mood of Todi. Pilu, Bageshree and Nilambari again. In his opinion, it was karuna rasa (pathos) which was their keynote. Hindol, Shankara, Hamsadhwani and Adana, which I heard next, depicted the veera rasa (martial mood). And finally, Panditji sang Des, Jhinjoti, Khamaj and Tilang which he said symbolized shringara rasa (love).

Thus, while he professed his dogmatic adherence to the bhava theory, equally intriguing, even fanciful, was his view that not only each raga or ragini, but even each passage or pattern from it could be rendered in a variety of ways to depict a different mood each time.

Baffled by his advocacy of both these concepts at two different meetings – to me they seemed contrary to each other – I cautiously requested him to dispel my gnawing doubts. This proved rather a fateful moment for me. Panditji was visibly rattled and asked me to go away, branding the whole community of newspapermen as ‘detractors’.

Omkarnathji shunned publicity but maintained a love-hate relationship with the press. I recall his concert appearances in the last few years of his active career. He had come to show a growing fondness for theoretical argument and caustic comment to supplement for even substitute for) his music wherever he performed. Music critics had become his bete noire during those years.

All things considered. Omkarnath Thakur was undoubtedly one of the most colourful personalities who strode the musical stage like a colossus for three decades. Both at home and abroad, public recognition came naturally to him. At home, he was recipient of prized laurels, awards and titles before and after independence.

But seldom cared to flaunt them. He was possibly the only Indian musician to have gone to the West as far back as the arly ‘30s and win plaudits in international soirees in several world capitals.

He wrote authoritative books like Pranava Bharati and Sangeetanjali on traditional music and lectured eloquently on the aesthetic aspects of ragas and raginis (propounding, at times, self-contradictory approaches, as mentioned earlier). He has taught a large number of students. It would seem, though, that he did not care to groom disciples worthy of him. The only exception is that of the noted South Indian exponent of Hindustani music, violinist N Rajam, whom he groomed in the manner of a ganda-bandh shagird. Yet he does have his band of ardent followers, who include vocalists and teachers like Balwantrai Bhatt, Chandrashekhar Pandya, P. N. Barve, Vasant Amrit, Pradeep Kumar Dikshit and others.

Panditji’s concerts were spectacular in many ways. His monumental voice, with its amazingly wide tonal range, depth and volume, seemed to achieve a perfect blend with the dignity of his bearing. With four tanpuras to back him and two accompanists to lend him vocal sangat, one would be tempted to liken the spectacle to the constellation of saptarishis in the firmament.

The maestro would proceed to unfold the nature of his chosen meolody with an uncanny insight into its design and structure. The progression of the raga was measured, steady and sure, marked by an easy traversal of the saptakas, where every swara become more and more luminous as he steadily moved up.

Panditji’s vilambit khayals unfolded a wealth and variety of ornamentation, while short, jerky but sparkling taans flowed out in profusion from his drut bandishes. In the devotional themes, he would treat us to a variety of vocal effects which often sounded alien to the melodic character of our music.

Yet Panditji maintained that Indian music recognized as many as 15 types of gamakas and that quite a few of these were similar to the shakes and tremolos employed in western music. He asserted that his use of these devices had the full sanction of the Indian tradition. To prove his point, he would proceed to quote chapter and verse from the shastras right in the midst of his performance!

It is difficult to say who among the old maestri had influenced Panditji’s music most. Once when I mustered courage to tell him that his vocalism sounded strikingly like that of Abdul Karim Khan (whom, incidentally, he was known to disparage in no uncertain terms) he emphatically replied that he was initially influenced by two ‘eccentric’ musicians.

One of them was Karim Baksh, a musician from Kashmir, and the other was Rehmat Khan, a luminary of his own Gwalior gharana who also influenced Abdul Karim Khan. The resemblance between his own style and that of Abdul Karim Khan was only incidental. But he was always immensely grateful to Vishnu Digambar Paluskar whom he acknowledged as his foremost guru.

Panditji’s rise to fame was as dramatic as a thriller. From a kitchen-helper to a mill-owner to a maestro – this was his singular distinction. His forebears were military men but he grew up in penury and was orphaned at the early age of 14. He earned his living as a cook and then as a mill-worker. The vicissitudes of life hardly dampened his spirit and his burning passion for music asserted itself in many ways.

A good swimmer as youngster, Omkarnath even braved he swirling waters of the Narmada for the sake of music and seldom missed an opportunity to present himself wherever visiting musicians happened to perform. He tried to learn music from temple musicians and even street-singers.

A wealthy Parsi gentleman from his native place in Gujarat, Shapurji Mancherji Doongaji, chancd to hear him sing. He came to know the story of the struggling youngster, took him under his wing and sent him to Bombay to undergo systematic training at the Gandharva Mahavidyalaya under the personal care of its founder, Paluskar. Omkarnath’s association with the great evangelist of Hindustani music, who pioneered a cultural revival in North India in the early years of this century, was destined to prove a landmark in the annals of North Indian music.

Vishnu Digambar found in Omkarnath a disciple of conspicuous talent and immense promise, one who was prepared to pursue his vocation with tenacity, courage and fortitude. The disciple zealously followed his master during the latter’s countrywide missionary tours. And by the time Omkarnath was 20, he began to hold music conferences.

I was surprised to learn from Panditji that his voice was originally slim and feminine. He owed the marvelous transformation in vocalization to the long and arduous practice of voice culture under the supervision of his mentor. He proudly referred to the swara-sadhana system of his mentor which, he said, was a combination of vocal and yogic exercises in siddha-asana, which imparted volume and fluidity to the voice.

A performing musician, in his view, should strive to go beyond a mere play with swaras– he should seek to establish spiritual communion with them. “These swaras are devates. The ideal in music should be on a par with the yogic ideal of Nada-Brahman as a spiritually liberating force, which was hardly realizable in this mundane world with all its limitations,” the maestro said.

Panditji was an uncompromising believer in the mysteries and miracles of music. He thought that a high-force pancham was capable of breaking a glass. This brought to my mind musical stories connected with Swami Haridas and Tansen. To drive home his point, he once referred to an ancient work called Raga Chikitsa, which dealt with musical therapeutics.

Similar, he claimed to have demonstrated before the late Jagdish Chandra Bose the influence of music on plant life. While he was a stickler for the timing of the ragas in the Hindustani tradition, he also believed in the fundamental unity of the two systems of classical music in India.

All said and done, it is the multi-splendoured genius of Omkarnath Thakur that put him in a class by himself. He was a purist, romanticist and iconoclast rolled into one. Which is why h compelled the kind of attention he did and generated controversy as few others could his was the voice militant and posterity will remember him as one maestro who sought to blaze a new trail in the traditional domain.

His recorded music is all that posterity has to cherish and preserve as a memory of his suigeneris music. Mention must specially be made of his recorded renditions of Desi Todi, Todi,Nilambari, Sughrai, Malkauns, a Surdas bhajan and last but not least, his lecture – demonstration on the Raga Bilaval followed by a performance in Alhaiya Bilaval. While all these melodies enshrine his musical revelations, it is in the last-mentioned disc that the maestro’s inimitable oratory astounds the listener as much as his musical stature.


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